The kindness of strangers

Posted Oct. 27, 2008, at 8:25 p.m.
Last modified March 20, 2011, at 6:17 a.m.

Air Force Master Sgt. Colette Beaulieu of Hermon had a lot on her mind as she prepared for her recent deployment. Because her future plans were unclear, she had a home to sell, household belongings to put into storage, and an 18-year-old son to settle into a new apartment.

One critical pre-deployment task Beaulieu checked off her to-do list weeks ago, however, was figuring out what to do with her longtime friend and faithful companion Duke, an engaging and energetic 6-year-old yellow Lab mix. Thanks to a national organization that links deploying service members with local foster families, Duke will live with new friends in Milford during the three months Beaulieu is stationed at Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota.

On Monday evening, Beaulieu and her son Matthew drove Duke out to the County Road home of Rachel Putnam and her 22-year-old son, Aaron. As Duke got acquainted with Putnam’s shaggy, mellow, black pooch Kerby, and as the young men enclosed a section of the grassy yard with high chain-link fencing, the two women reviewed Duke’s health history, his diet and other particulars.

“That’s the microchip ID number, and that’s the number you call if he gets lost,” Beaulieu said, sitting at the table in Putnam’s cozy kitchen. Beaulieu and Putnam had signed an agreement detailing the legal aspects of the foster-care arrangement, including giving Putnam the authority to make medical decisions for Duke in Beaulieu’s absence.

For Beaulieu, it was crucial to find a safe home for her bouncy dog during her deployment.

“I got him at the [Bangor] animal shelter when he was just 8 weeks old,” Beaulieu said. “He’s been with me pretty much ever since. We’ve been through a lot together.”

Beaulieu and Putnam were brought together by Steve Albin, a retired houseplant dealer who lives in North Myrtle Beach, S.C. Albin decided to establish a nationwide network of volunteer foster families for the pets of service members after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, when, he said, tens of thousands of animals were given up for adoption, euthanized or simply abandoned when their owners were deployed.

“What kind of a morale-builder is that?” Albin asked during a recent telephone interview. Since his Internet-based organization, NetPets, was established, more than 12,000 dogs, cats, birds, ferrets, rabbits, snakes and other creatures have found safe, temporary homes with caring strangers, he said. Even a potbelly pig and an emu have been taken in, along with goats, horses and other livestock.

The organization also provides assistance to people who have been forced to leave pets behind during disasters such as hurricanes or flooding.

In Maine, Albin said, NetPets has put at least 50 service members in touch with foster families.

Most foster-pet placements last from nine to 12 months, but NetPets has placed animals for as little as one month and as long as 18 months. The organization provides contact information and a recommended legal framework for the parties to use but takes no responsibility for the outcome of the fostering agreements. NetPets operates on charitable donations and does not charge for its services. So far, there have been few problems, Albin said.

Pet owners reimburse the unpaid foster homes for all expenses related to the care of their pets, including vet bills, food and professional boarding if it becomes necessary. In the event that the service member is killed or seriously injured while deployed, NetPets will help resolve the situation.

On Tuesday, Rachel Putnam said Duke’s first night had been a little rough.

“He wouldn’t leave Kerby alone,” she said. But by later that day, she reported, the two dogs were playing happily together. After a couple of spats, she added, Duke’s interest in her two cats had waned and all signs pointed to a successful foster care placement.

Putnam, retired from a 20-year career in the Navy, said she read about NetPets in an online military newsletter and felt called to offer her services.

“When I deployed overseas, I left my dogs behind,” she said. “I had to give them up. I know how hard it can be to leave a pet behind.”

Beaulieu, whose flight left early last week, said she was sad to leave Duke but comforted by knowing he’ll be in capable and affectionate hands while she’s gone. During her 16 years in the Air National Guard, she said, she has seen many service members struggle to find temporary homes for their pets when they deploy. Too often, pets are taken to shelters or put to sleep, she said, but those options weren’t for her, or for Duke.

“I took him from the Humane Society when he was just a puppy. I chose to give him a home,” Beaulieu said. “I could never give him up.”

For information about the NetPets Military Pets foster care program, visit www.netpets.org or call Steve Albin at 843-249-5262.

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